Tulum – Isla Mujeres: A Tale of Dancing, Sexism and Whalesharks

Tulum:

Worth noting for anyone doing a similar route to me in the near future – the night bus from Palenque to Tulum was freezing. Wear socks, a hoodie and thermals!

In Tulum, the atmosphere drastically altered. What was once gentle socialising unravelled into intense organised fun. Social interactions felt more weighted by status and sex, likely due to the many tourists that flock to Cancun to party (more on this later) . We went clubbing for Mexican Independence Day; at 3am, I turned to face a sea of snogging tourists. The primary romantic connection I fostered that night was with lovely Ollie’s dancing:

I only saw this vid a few days ago but it makes me smile!!!!! Ollie’s dancing makes me look bad

Tulum is very hot. And obscenely expensive. We were primarily there as a stop-off from which to do the Whale Shark Swimming Tour. The season for whale shark swimming in Mexico ends on 17th September – how behind am I in these blogs?! – so we adjusted our route to give ourselves time.

We left Tulum at 5:30am. The guide explained the importance of wearing biodegradable sun lotion (did not know this prior, but apparently sun tan lotion is really destructive to aquatic life). We jumped aboard a boat near Isla Mujeres, and glided through electric blue waters.

En route, a manta ray began tailing us. It was roughly the span of a car. An oceanic spectre, it encircled the boat, flicking ripples of water in our direction when our attention was drawn elsewhere. Suddenly, it flipped out of the sea and rotated, exposing its creamy underside. Exquisite performative flair.

Then, the whale sharks; their vast, dappled bodies looked otherworldly. Their gaping mouths broke the ocean’s surface to feed. We were instructed to jump in and swim alongside them, which was a bit of an ask considering how much we were pissing them off. Lo and behold, upon our ungraceful entry into the water, the whale sharks became aggravated and relocated. The first time we leapt, it was too disorientating to swim – especially with a huge tail licking the water ahead. The second time we were acclimatised and ready. It was incredible.

Video curtesy of Adam

Tulum is perhaps most famous for its cenotes, which are as sublime as they are expensive.

If like me you are on a budget, I recommend researching local cenotes and selecting just a couple. To visit all of them is financially unviable (although tempting!)

Gran Cenote is situated directly in a cave. The clear waters are dotted with the heads of tiny turtles, whilst you can swim below the cave’s natural tunnel below the chocolate-drop clusters of furry bats and finches nesting in the walls. I borrowed a snorkel to peek below some stalagmites, where enormous turtles rested on rocks in aqua waters.

Car Wash Cenote had the feel of a small, startlingly blue lagoon. It was a good spot for snorkelling and for having fish nibble your toes (free pedi???).

Recommendations:

  • Tulum is the kind of place where, if you surround yourself with lovely people, it’s a great place to spend a few days. However, if you don’t, it is expensive and not all that characterful. I was lucky enough to be in the former category, but now my wallet is sad.

Isla Mujeres:

By the time we left Tulum, I was very much ready to not be in Tulum. Nattie and I booked a few nights at Nomad’s Hostel in Isla Mujeres, which had a private beach and was a bus drive away from the touristy town centre. I also turned 24 there, which worked out well because the beach parties were excellent fun and I discovered how DELICIOUS these drinks are:

One evening, just as we were winding down for bed, a group of German boys asked whether we wanted to go turtle hunting (in the non-genocidal sense) on a beach towards the other side of the island. We taxi’d there, and, brandishing phone torches and some optimism, scoured the landscape. There was nothing but swathes of sand. I went for a paddle whilst the others continued searching. In front of me, I clocked the silhouette of a large rock jutting from the ocean. I squinted in the dark, and then gasped. It was a huge turtle, likely burying its eggs.

It was a glorious birthday setting and I was so blessed to have Nattie there to make me breakfast and buy me beverages (which, alas, I vommed up at 11:30pm).

Fun aside, something about our company had begun to make me uneasy. I noticed that a lot of the male guests would not make eye contact with me when I spoke to them, or were reluctant to engage in conversation with me if I was not perceived as fuckable/ willing to fuck. I rationalised this shift in dynamic as being correlated with the ‘party’ tourism associated with the Cancun area.

On the Big Day, our friend Nini and I ventured to a so-called ‘secret beach’ with a couple of guys from our hostel. We waded until we were swimming, and then congregated for a tread-in-water chat. We (they) noticed that there were topless girls on the shore.

‘Hey, did you notice the topless girls? I wish that they were staying in our hostel!’

‘Haha, yeah!’ Lads blah blah chat.

Then, one of them turned to us.

‘We should go skinny dipping later!’

‘No,’ I said.

‘Why?’

‘I only go skinny dipping with girls.’

‘Why?’

‘Because women’s bodies are sexualised.’

What ensued was a twenty minute ‘conversation’ in which Nini and I were forced to justify why we did not want to strip in front of them.

‘92% of women have been sexually assaulted,’ said Nini. ‘And if, as you argue, women’s breasts are not sexualised, how come we wear bikini tops and men do not?’

‘So you’re saying that 92% of men are sexual assaulters?’ chimed Mr Morals.

‘Men do not all sexualise women’s bodies. I am getting defensive because you have generalised about my gender.’ Said by the man who 2 minutes earlier had clocked topless girls and made lewd comments.

‘Women are only sexually assaulted in Germany in bars and clubs. It doesn’t happen elsewhere.’ Said by the German had ogled my friend’s tits and told her he wanted to see her naked an hour before, and slapped another friend’s bum.

‘Do you know how HARD to make any points around you when you continuously interrupt me?!’ Barked at me by a man who had interrupted me to make his current point.

We tried. In vain.

I told them of the time, in San Cristobal just two weeks before, when I was on a walking tour and felt a penis in my hand. ‘Shit, I’m sorry!’ I had drawn my hand away, mortified at having accidentally grasped someone’s crotch. I heard a grunt, then felt a lurch behind me as a stranger, discontent with having shoved his dick into my hand, pushed his erection into me from behind.

‘Women must be constantly vigilant,’ I ventured. ‘Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that one in two men have the POTENTIAL to sexually assault you – I am not saying that half of men have sexually assaulted’

…(although, eye-roll, on an international scale they likely have – a statement that seems to upset a lot of men. If it upsets them, imagine how it makes the actual victims feel?)…

‘…And I have invented this statistic. You cannot measure that. But, as we do not know how many men have the potential to sexually assault us, we must be wary that lots of them do.’

What the men heard from this conversation was, ‘50% of men definitely assault women!’

Oh. My. God.

If, as a man, your reaction is defensiveness when women recount instances of misogyny, then something inside of you needs confronting. If you know that you harbour no sexist tendencies or beliefs, why are you defensive? When we use the word ‘men’ to describe perpetrators, you are the one adding the word ‘all’. We never said it was ‘all men’. But the people harassing, assaulting and dehumanising us are all men. (This is Eats Shoots and Leaves Terrain for dummies). Listen to women and do not make it about you. It isn’t.

I was glad that the discussion had detonated: it exposed the sexism that I had sensed during my time on the island.

The following day, I visited the same beach with the girls. There were no men there, so naturally we swam and sunbathed topless. Bliss.

Recommendations:

  • Nomad’s Hostel. Staff were rude, but the location was stunning, the parties were fun, and the facilities made for a resort feel for £11 a night. We briefly visited the other party hostel – Selina – but it lacked the luxury of ours.
  • Food is expensive in both Tulum and Isla, so for budget travellers like me DIY dinners in hostel kitchens beckon. Made all the more pleasant by the chocolate milk drinks they sell here that I buy by the carton and swig whilst I cook, because YUM.

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